What is Avoidance Behavior? An Explainer

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

Our experiences are complex, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s break them down into two separate categories – inside experiences and outside experiences. 

  • Outside experiences include everything that happens outside of us like sensory input, social interactions, the places we go, the things we do, the events that make up our lives, and so on.
  • Inside experiences include everything inside our bodies and brains – like our physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. 

Our outside and inside experiences are closely linked. So the things that happen outside of us trigger specific thoughts and emotions inside of us. 

For example, if I were to tell a joke and the people around me laughed (outside experience), I might feel a sense of confidence or joy (inside experience). Or, in the more likely scenario (for me), if I tell a joke, and no one laughs (outside experience), I might feel mortified and stupid (inside experience).

But we can also reverse the sequence, so our inside experiences (thoughts, feelings, or general mood) impact our outside experiences.

For example, suppose I’m put on the spot to give a speech at my best friend’s wedding. I hate giving speeches, especially on the fly, so I immediately experience a rush of fear and feel like vomiting (inside experience). When I stand up to speak, my nerves get the best of me and I freeze for what seems like ages and then stumble over my words(outside experience).

We’ve discussed how inside experiences can bias outside experiences in depth in the article The Grief Lens and It’s Impact on Outlook.

Outside vs Inside: Who’s in charge?

Though our outside experiences are important, our inside experiences drive the bus. As humans, we seek outside experiences that lead to positive inside experiences, and we avoid outside experiences that lead to unpleasant inside experiences.

This equation, if we may call it that, is pretty straightforward a lot of the time.

  • Drinking a cold glass of water on a hot day = pleasant –> hydrate!
  • Scoring a goal in your favorite sport = pleasant –> practice and repeat!
  • Getting the stomach flu = unpleasant –> Yuck, avoid germs if possible!
  • Someone laughing at you (not with you) = unpleasant –> Avoid potentially embarrassing situations

Simple enough – right? Well…sometimes.Unfortunately, it isn’t always this easy because we are complex, and so are our experiences.

Unpleasant vs Pleasant Experiences: Which wins?

Most situations aren’t all good or all bad. So you often have to tolerate feeling, or at least risk feeling, something you don’t like to experience the rewards of feeling something you do like. In these instances, you may have to decide what’s more important to you: avoiding the negative or experiencing the potentially positive.

You may not realize it, but many of our behaviors result from the (largely unconscious) decision to either avoid potential pain or move towards potentially meaningful, fulfilling, valued, or pleasurable experiences. For example, let’s say I’m single and ready to find a partner and settle down, but I hate the idea of experiencing rejection. So I have to decide, which inside experience will dictate my choices? Is the idea of falling in love worth risking rejection? Or do I stay single and avoid the possibility of ever feeling unloved and unwanted?

Since this is a grief website, I’ll share a quote from Queen Elizabeth that perfectly sums this up, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” Love is the ultimate example of something we do, knowing that it will cause us great joy and great pain. When we love someone, it’s with the knowledge that we could lose them in life and that we will eventually be parted in death. The only way to avoid ever feeling this pain is to never love and connect with another person.

understand avoidance behavior

Inside Experiences and Avoidance Behavior

When someone finds the possibility of experiencing unpleasant thoughts or emotions so intolerable that they let this fear guide their choices and behaviors –this is avoidance. The key difference between avoidance and non-avoidance behavior is that avoidance behavior seeks to minimize or escape painful or thoughts and emotions at all costs.

Occasional avoidance behavior makes sense in doses. We all do it from time to time. Sometimes avoiding an experience is inconsequential, and sometimes it makes sense to avoid temporarily. But sometimes it means sacrificing the possibility of experiencing positive thoughts and feelings like happiness, love, comfort, and connection.

Avoidance becomes a problem when it’s a chronic coping mechanism. Here are a few reasons why:

  • When you regularly avoid painful experiences, you never learn how to cope with them. Avoiding these thoughts, emotions, and memories usually won’t make them go away. So ultimately, you have no choice but to keep running from them, which can cause immense anxiety.
  • Some types of avoidance behaviors are quite harmful. For example, isolation and substance abuse.
  • Avoiding potentially painful experiences can prevent you from engaging in experiences that could otherwise be pleasurable, valuable, comforting, supportive, and meaningful (see our example in the section above)

Unfortunately, many of our most potentially positive experiences involve the risk or certainty of also experiencing things like pain, sadness, rejection, embarrassment, failure, or grief. To quote ACT psychologist Steven C. Hayes, 

“Pain and purpose are two sides of the same thing. A person struggling with depression is very likely a person yearning to feel fully. A socially anxious person is very likely a person yearning to connect with others. You hurt where you care, and you care where you hurt.” 

So often a person who tends towards avoidance behavior, may inadvertently find they are closing themselves off from people, places, and experiences that they actually long for because they’re letting fear and avoidance of unpleasant inside experiences guide their behavior.

Avoidance Behavior in Grief

When you are grieving, every person, place, or thing connected with your loss takes on the risk of reminding you of something painful. And in the early days of grief, reminders are everywhere. Not only are they all around you, but they’re inside, too, in your thoughts and memories. Sometimes it seems you can’t even make it through a few hours without feeling punched in the gut by grief. So in these early days, avoidance behavior starts to make a lot of sense.  

avoidance behavior in grief

As mentioned, there are times when occasional avoidance behavior is helpful in grief. For example, imagine someone who goes back to work after a loved one’s death and finds seeing the family photos on their desk upsetting. They don’t want to get emotional at work, so as much as they love photos of their loved one, they shut these reminders in a drawer.

It’s okay to take some control over where and when you deal with your grief if you can. You don’t have to give in to emotion every time grief comes calling. As long as you take time to grieve on your own terms and don’t avoid all reminders always, you’re doing okay. However, if you attempt to avoid all reminders, it might begin to create other troubles for you. Some signs that avoidance might be a problem include.

  • Isolating yourself from important people, places, and things.
  • Using substances to avoid feeling or thinking
  • Increased sense of anxiety, worry, or rumination
  • Efforts to avoid all reminders like people, places, objects, and memories

For more on understanding avoidance behavior in grief, check out our article Understanding Avoidance in Grief. And if you see yourself in some of these patterns and are looking for ways to address grief avoidance, check out this article on Addressing Chronic Avoidance of Grief.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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8 Comments on "What is Avoidance Behavior? An Explainer"

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  1. Veronica  November 18, 2021 at 1:33 pm Reply

    Glad I found this page. My dad is terribly sick and I feel like I’m already grieving even as he is still alive, I avoid going home too. I rather be away so to not think about it yet fell guilty for being absent. I have to deal with school work too and now that I don’t have a job.

    It’s just a lot, I rather just be on my own feeling lonely n sad. It’s confusing

  2. Wendy  November 18, 2021 at 12:12 pm Reply

    Thank you for this very timely article. I know I’ve been practicing grief avoidance and being hard on myself and your words help me realize im not alone. My son was tragically killed 6 years ago by a semi truck on my mothers birthday. I run away every November 13 to avoid the birthday celebration with the rest of my siblings and spend quiet time with my daughter. I feel guilty for leaving but would feel worse, faking a happy birthday celebration for my mother.
    I’m learning coping skills with every passing year, but it may just take the rest of my life.

  3. Linda Lieber  November 17, 2021 at 1:31 am Reply

    I am 62 years old. Between 1997 and 2006, I buried my entire family. That last one to die was my mom. At that point, I was broken. I do have a brother and sister who are still living, but they do not speak to me. I honestly do not know why. I have reached out to them hundreds of times since 2008. but to no avail. In 2013, I decided to leave NY and moved to New Jersey. I was not here more than six months before I lost the use of my left leg and was put in a wheelchair. The losses I had suffered were compounded immensely by the loss of my independence. I have been here for 8 years. I have no friends, nowhere to go, and no purpose in life. Reading this article caused me to learn about my avoidance behavior. I have been living in isolation since 2014. My anxiety and depression are so bad that I can no longer leave my house. At first my two children kept trying to get me to go out. Now, not to upset me, they come and visit a couple of times a month and we just stay home. I never considered “avoidance”, I always felt like I am stuck in quicksand. How do I learn to grieve these losses? I have been living with the sadness for so long. If anyone can offer some advice, I would be very grateful. Thank you and I am honored to have found this website. God Bless.

  4. Kristie Townsend  November 8, 2021 at 10:29 pm Reply

    I have experienced this symptom too

    it can become debilitating

  5. Ellen  November 6, 2021 at 6:00 am Reply

    I just read the article on avoidance. I live in Holland , since my husband died at the age of 48, I found WYG on the internet. I’m a psychologist myself. I want to thank you for this great website! I feel very well understood each time I read an article. I recommended your website to others. So well done your information and the way you speak about grief. So again, thank you for your great work!

  6. Elle  November 5, 2021 at 9:52 am Reply

    I’m avoiding going on with my life because I feel I don’t deserve to go on and be happy again. I’m 20 and lost my dad, who was 60, we had the most wonderful relationship, he was my best friend and my mentor, but this past 2 years during the pandemic I discovered a side of him I wasn’t aware of, and I felt hurt and disappointed. Angry thoughts started running through my mind, and I started avoiding him, I started thinking I wouldn’t care if he died, or that my life would be better that way. Those thoughts became recurrent, I was holding on to anger because I didn’t allow myself to be vulnerable. My dad suddenly died a month ago, and that’s when my nightmare began, I didn’t get to say goodbye, I didn’t make any last memories, I forgot that he was my dad, I didn’t understand how permanent death is and what it truly meant, all I did was ignore him and fantasize about him not being in my life anymore, even physically. Who does that? How did I get to have such thoughts? I’m dissapointed in myself, I failed as a daughter, and all I can think about is how ashamed I am for all of this. There’s guilt too, a feeling that is my fault for having such thoughts and dark desires that I know now I never truly meant. But is too late, dad didn’t deserve to die, is not fair, is not fair I had such thoughts and he isn’t here anymore while I have a whole life ahead of me. Thinking about moving on and being happy makes me sick to the stomach because I genuinely feel it’s all my fault.

  7. Penny  November 5, 2021 at 9:21 am Reply

    I haven’t had a service or buried my daughter’s ashes after she died unexpectedly in May 2020. At first the reason was due to covid restrictions and now I simply don’t want to undue all the progress I feel that I have made in my grieving journey. I am now in a place of actually feeling like I can live some sort of life without her now.

  8. Earla Legault  November 5, 2021 at 3:30 am Reply

    HI, well your article couldn’t have come at a better time. I just finished/pressed send (instead of chickening out) an email to my two adult children. It was regarding my niece / their cousin who was like an older sibling to them both. She died two years ago in her mid thirties, just after her first child died in utro at 7 months.

    Still grieving their aunt/my sister’s death, our family have all been so broken up by our hearts breaking and missing our ‘ray of sunshine’ and the new child that we anticipated with open arms. I wrote our children about how I have been avoiding speaking about their cousin, to shelter them and in turn my self of pain. I felt as though I needed to apologize and tell them i will do better, to respect them as the adults they are. It was a lengthy email however i will speak with both of them more open now. I have been doing the grief work regarding my sibling but now with my niece and her baby dying, our family’s tragedy and loss is profound. For the last few years, i kept this quote by Jackie Kai Ellis in my mind. “I made this an exercise in vulnerability. I wanted to be a strong as I could possibly be, by being as vulnerable as I could possibly be.”

    I have especially enjoyed building a relationship now with my nieces’ hubby and his family – lovely wonderful people who also miss my nieces’ loving presence in their lives.

    I appreciate your wise articles such as this one , that will help me navigate this part of life. I want to be respectful of the way my adult children choose to grieve while at the same time, not avoid by becoming detached to my feelings of empathy for their loss. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us all.

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